Mbuna Cichlid – Species Profile & Facts

Some people like to have colorful aquariums with a variety of fish species. Others like to focus on one species and prioritize the environment and aqua sculpture instead. And then you have a few that would like to see the world burn and get the meanest and most vicious fish they can find.

This is how you end up with piranha and cichlid lovers. Although to be fair, the latter category isn’t as bad as the first one.

Today, we will discuss a fascinating family of fish – the Mbuna cichlids. But before getting to that, what exactly are cichlids?

Cichlids are a group of fish that belong to the Cichlidae family and are popular thanks to several interesting aspects. These include:

  • Endangerment – The Cichlidae family contains the highest number of endangered species of all the vertebrate families, which is an impressive feat in and of itself. Fortunately, there are a lot of species to account for, around 1,650 recognized and many others remaining to be discovered. An official estimate pushes the number of potential cichlid species at over 3,000.
  • Parental care – All cichlids provide parental care to their young in some form or another. Some species protect the eggs until hatching, others even care for their young upon birth, while many others display mouthbrooding behavior.
  • I am violence – Cichlids are notorious for their appetite for destruction. Males, especially, are extremely territorial and display a strong sense of hierarchy. Generally speaking, cichlids aren’t exactly the best species to introduce into a community tank for obvious reasons.

With this out of the way, let’s discuss Mbuna cichlids and see what makes these so different.

What is Mbuna Cichlid?

The Mbuna is a large cichlid group describing cichlids that only reside in Lake Malawi. Apparently, these species were separated from other cichlids when the lake was formed, causing the Mbuna cichlids to become stranded in an enclosed environment. They had to adapt to their new habitat, and, over time, they formed a new species. Several species, actually, all contained within the Mbuna family.

These cichlids are different from their regular counterparts in appearance and overall behavior. They display an amazing color diversity, especially males and especially dominant males. While all cichlids are rather violent and territorial, it’s the Mbuna species that take things to the next level.

These species are notorious for their violent outbursts and propensity towards aggression, most of which comes from their need for territorial domination. This, corroborated with other aspects of the fish’s behavior and environmental needs, ranks Mbuna cichlids as non-beginner-friendly.

Where do Mbuna Cichlid Come From?

Lake Malawi is the home of around 700 species (some claim more) of Mbuna cichlids, while the lake itself crosses state lines in Mozambique, Tanzania, and Malawi. The lake spans over 11,400 square miles and is 360 miles long and 47 miles wide.

An interesting fact about the Malawi lake is that most of its wildlife consists of cichlids. There are other life forms to consider, like crustaceans, mollusks, and a variety of fish species (catfish, African tetra, spotted killifish, cyprinids, etc.). The bulk of the fish comprises several groups of cichlids like the haplochromines and tilapia, each with its own subgroups and species.

What do Mbuna Cichlids Eat?

Most Mbuna cichlids are herbivorous, but not all. An interesting aspect about these cichlids is that their diet can change based on the available food in their environment. In this sense, you can say that the Mbuna cichlids are more opportunistic eaters. They won’t consume willingly some types of foods but will do so when forced.

For instance, the Mbuna cichlids’ favorite food is something called aufwuchs which stands for ‘surface growth’ in German. The same thing is also called periphyton, which sounds better and makes you wonder why everybody mentions the German version of the word. The word defines the accumulation of various plant and animal matter either at the water’s surface or underwater on rocks that typically house Mbuna cichlids.

These organic accumulations comprise of algae, microbes, cyanobacteria, detritus, and even small crustaceans. This mix provides cichlids with all the nutrients they need to remain healthy and full. If periphyton isn’t available for some reason, Mbuna cichlids will also consume other food sources.

These include insect or fish eggs, insect larvae, different types of algae, invertebrates, fish fry, etc. They won’t refuse any type of protein source, although they don’t really like carnivorous diets.

In captivity, Mbuna cichlids prefer herbivorous diets with the occasional animal-protein treat. Knowing that these cichlids will turn to algae whenever they don’t get enough food makes them occasionally skip a day in their feeding schedule. This will force the cichlids to feed on the environmental algae present in their environment, contributing to a cleaner and healthier habitat.

Just don’t abuse this tactic since your cichlids need a regular and healthy diet to prevent health issues. Once a week should suffice.

Types of Mbuna Cichlids

With over 1,600 recognized Mbuna cichlid species and twice as many believed to remain undiscovered, saying that the pool is diverse would be an understatement. If you’ve set your eyes on the Mbuna cichlid, there are several species that are already making waves in the field. Here are the most popular Mbuna cichlid species available today for aquarists:

  • Bumblebee cichlid – This species looks exactly like you imagine it does. It comes with a yellow body and brown vertical stripes, decorating a bulky and compact body. This is an omnivorous cichlid with a rather deranged behavior, leading to extreme aggressive outbursts relating to territory dominance and mating rights. The male bumblebee cichlid requires a harem of females otherwise, he will just harass the one female until death by stress will become a likely outcome.
  • Red Zebra cichlid – This species is not as combative, although it still displays occasional territorial aggression, as it befits any decent cichlid. The Red Zebra cichlid is a very fitting name, given that this species is neither red nor does it display zebra-like stripes. Yes, that was sarcasm. Red Zebra cichlids come in a variety of colors, including blue, beige, pink, orange, and yellow. Some are also red.
  • Clown Lab cichlid – This species is somewhat similar to the bumblebee, except it only comes in blue coloring. The typical clown lab displays a light blue body and vertical, thick, dark blue stripes. Some even showcase neon-like nuances, improving their color contrast under specific lighting conditions.
  • Elongatus Jewel Spot Cichlid – Do not confuse Elongatus cichlids, which are different in appearance behavior and not Malawi native. The Jewel cichlid is unique in appearance as the male is completely black, while the female is completely blue. However, both genders will display bright blue spots at the base of the dorsal fins from head to tail. Some also showcase blue stripes over their head, often with neon-like glows.

There are many other species to consider, some more exotic than others. However, no matter the species, one thing stays true for all Mbuna cichlids – they are rather difficult to accommodate and maintain in the long run. They require optimal living conditions, a properly set-up tank, and carefully chosen tank mates to avoid violent incidents.

Mbuna Water Requirements

The ideal temperature for Mbuna cichlids revolves around 77 to 84 F, which is rather high, even compared to those preferred by tropical fish. However, some people suggest that Mbuna’s favorite temperatures may vary, depending on where that species lived in the wild. Not all Mbuna species may prefer the same temperatures, since they live in different areas of the lake with varying temperatures.

They also require impeccable water chemistry, since ammonia and nitrites are particularly harmful for this species. For this reason, weekly water changes are a must, especially if you have many cichlids in the same tank. The official recommendation is to change between 20% to 40% of the water weekly, but I think that’s too much.

I would recommend sticking to 15% water changes weekly. Anything more than that may hurt your cichlids, since they rely heavily on their water minerals to remain healthy long-term. Changing 40% of the water will dilute those minerals and affect the cultures of beneficial bacteria, causing significant imbalances in the ecosystem.

The levels of oxygen in the water should be rather high and the pH needs to remain stable between 7.5 to 8.5.

Mbuna Tank Requirements

Before assessing the Mbunas’ tank size requirements, you need to consider 2 critical aspects:

  1. Mbunas live in groups – If you plan on keeping 1 or 2 Mbuna cichlids, stop planning. These fish are meant to live in groups of at least 8 individuals, which is the only way to diminish their aggressive tendencies. So, when looking for the ideal tank size for a given Mbuna species, you’re actually looking for something to accommodate 8 Mbunas, not one.
  2. Mbunas can reach varying sizes – Some Mbuna cichlids can grow larger than others. In the wild, they will typically grow to 2-3 inches, which is usually due to food scarcity. In captivity, however, they can easily reach double that. You need to consider your favorite cichlid’s maximum size before determining how large their enclosure should be.

To give you a generalized view on the matter, a group of 8 cichlids, each measuring around 4 inches, require at least 30 gallons of space. This is primarily due to the males’ extremely territorial behavior, as each male has a well-defined spherical territory to attend to.

Other larger species of cichlids can reach 6 inches in size and require a 45-gallon tank to remain comfortable long-term.

What do Mbuna Cichlids Need in Their Tank?

As you already know by now, Mbuna Cichlids are rather pretentious with their habitat settings. They require several components to experience a long, healthy, and stable life over the years:

  • Plants – These are necessary for 2 reasons. On one hand, plants oxygenate the water and consume excess carbon dioxide during the day. They also keep ammonia levels low and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria, contributing to a healthier and more stable ecosystem. On the other hand, they serve as hiding and help cichlids feel more comfortable in their natural-looking habitat.
  • Caves and rocks – No other fish species has a more drastic need for rocks and caves that Mbuna cichlids. You want proof? The name ‘Mbuna’ literally means ‘rockfish’ in Tonga, one of the major languages spoken by Malawi residents. Mbunas rely on cave systems and rocks to hide, rest, and feed, as these form the majority of their natural environment.
  • A potent filtering system – Mbuna cichlids love moderate water currents and require a highly oxygenated environment to remain healthy long-term. A filtering system will work wonders in this sense, aside from controlling ammonia and nitrites.
  • A heating system – As I’ve already mentioned, Mbuna cichlids require rather higher temperatures, in the ballpark of 77 to 85 F. These values require the existence of a reliable heating system to prevent temperature fluctuations and inconsistencies.

As a side note, aquarium plants and Mbuna cichlids aren’t exactly the best tank mates. These cichlids have a knack for unearthing and destroying most plants around their habitat. Which is why I recommend relying on java fern as the main decoration. This plant isn’t particularly palatable, meaning that cichlids will mostly avoid it.

How Long do Mbuna Cichlids Live?

The typical lifespan for Mbuna cichlids is between 5 to 10 years. They tend to live longer in optimal water conditions and are given adequate food.

Are Mbuna Cichlids Aggressive?

Mbuna cichlids aren’t aggressive, they represent aggression. Males are as territorial as they can get and will obliterate any foreign fish entering their territory. Especially another male cichlid. In the wild, male cichlids have harems, with one male having multiple females at its disposal. This is the only thing that keeps the male’s aggression in check.

Other males may live in the same group, but the group will always have one dominant male ruling over the rest. There’s an interesting relation between the cichlids’ coloring and their hierarchical positions. The dominant male will display the most vivid colors, while the other males and females will showcase duller nuances.

Assessing the fish’s coloring is a good way of determining who’s the dominant male in the pack.

But can you reduce their aggressive tendencies to ensure a calmer and safer environment? Yes, you can. Here are the several tested methods that reduce aggression in Mbuna cichlids:

  • Proper feeding – The less food the cichlids have, the more aggressive they will become. Food competition is normal among cichlids and will often lead to excessive violence. Keep them in a state of food abundance, and cichlids won’t feel as inclined to violence anymore.
  • Consider different species – A less-known aspect about African cichlids in general and Mbuna cichlids, in particular, is that they are more aggressive towards their own. Cichlids rely on visual cues to identify members of their own species, which immediately triggers their competitive behavior. They don’t display the same competitive tendencies towards other species of cichlids. So, rely on a mixed tank to keep cichlids calmer in the long run.
  • Consider overcrowding – You probably didn’t see this coming, but cichlids do better when overcrowded than when living in an open space. Open spaces can make cichlids uneasy and more aggressive than usual, and that’s twice as true for Mbuna cichlids. So, bring more cichlids together and allow them to form their hierarchical setup accordingly. Their population will soon stabilize, and they will grow more comfortable and at ease with their environment. Just remember that overcrowded fish require more frequent water changes and will produce more waste. So, regular tank cleaning is necessary to keep the cichlids’ habitat safe and stable.
  • Plenty of hiding spots – Some cichlids will be more aggressive than others, which makes others victims more often than not. Having a reliable cave system and plenty of rocks will allow the bullied to hide from their aggressors. This will lower the tensions in the tank and contribute to a more peaceful environment.
  • More horizontal space – Mbuna cichlids are more bottom dwellers and like to swim horizontally than vertically. So, consider a longer tank, as opposed to a taller one. This will provide your cichlids with more space to set up their territory properly.

Are Mbuna Cichlids Good Tank Mates?

For their own, yes, for other fish, not really. Mbuna cichlids aren’t used to sharing their space with other fish, and they will often let their aggression speak for them. Combining these cichlids with any type of peaceful fish is bound to end up in disaster.

If you love cichlids, either only pair them with other cichlids, or keep them within their own species.


Mbuna cichlids are gaining a lot of popularity among aquarists thanks to their vicious temperament, astounding color diversity, and that exotic and exclusive vibe coming with them. Just remember that Mbuna cichlids aren’t meant for beginners. They are too aggressive and require vastly different maintenance and care approaches compared to most popular tank fish species.

However, if you think you’re up for the task, Mbuna cichlids will make for great aquarium choices. They can live as long as 10 years with proper care and maintenance.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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